Asian WTA Icons: Ai Sugiyama
Published February 13, 2014 12:12
KANAGAWA, Japan - These are exciting times for women's tennis in the Asia-Pacific - new events in the region, the WTA Championships in Singapore, Li Na making major waves in singles and Hsieh Su-Wei and Peng Shuai the same in doubles. But it's been building for decades, and this year we will be looking back at some of the players who contributed to this momentum over the last few decades.
There isn't a much better place to start than Ai Sugiyama - a star in singles, a star in doubles, one of the most liked players on the tour and, ultimately, one of the most missed players on the tour.
With impressive foot speed, steady ground game and deft touch at the net, Sugiyama made her debut in the Top 100 as a 19-year-old in 1994, and from there she crept up year by year, eventually breaking the Top 20 in 1997 shortly after winning the first WTA title of her career on home soil in Tokyo.
For years, though, she would be stuck in that 11-20 range - she kept picking off Top 10 players but couldn't get into the elite herself. Until she finally did - after the WTA Championships in 2003 she broke into the 10 best players in the world for the first time, and there was no one more deserving of it, as her win over Justine Henin in the round robin was her 17th Top 10 win - and that was just at the time.
Sugiyama would set a career-high of No.8 in the world on February 9, 2004 - almost exactly 10 years ago to this day - and she was just one of three Asian players to reach the Top 10, along with fellow Japanese and former World No.4 Kimiko Date-Krumm and China's Li Na, the soon-to-be World No.2.
But what Sugiyama had that those two didn't - or don't yet - was a legendary doubles resume. She was a three-time Grand Slam champion in the team discipline, winning the US Open in 2000 with Julie Halard-Decugis and the French Open and Wimbledon in 2003 with Kim Clijsters, and she also got to No.1 in doubles, spending 45 weeks there in four stints between October 2000 and November 2003.
Until now, Sugiyama was the first Asian to reach No.1 on the WTA in either singles or doubles - but by virtue of this week's results at the Qatar Total Open, China's Peng will join her on Monday.
Sugiyama's longevity was incredible too, and in one particular case, unmatched. She finished 13 straight seasons in the Top 40 - with 10 of those in the Top 30 - and her career spanned more than 19 years from her first tournament at Tokyo in 1990 to her last tournament at, fittingly, Tokyo in 2009.
As for unmatched, that would be her Grand Slam appearances record. Sugiyama played 62 straight Grand Slam main draws, between Wimbledon in 1994 and the US Open in 2009, an Open Era record for both male and female players (the next-highest tally is Wayne Ferreira, who played 56 straight).
Check back on wtatennis.com next month for another profile of an Asian WTA Icon...